This town once boasted a shabby student bar called the Blarney Stone. It specialized in pouring out shots of hard liquor, and was therefore popular among students who wished to get well oiled before suffering or perpetrating date rapes. The shots, the dates, and the rapes, were uniformly cheap and nasty.
I don’t know when it happened, but one day the Blarney stone either burned to the ground or went bankrupt and was bulldozed. One way or the other, the building disappeared, which was no great loss, since it, too, was cheap and nasty.
For years the lot lay vacant, a dreary patch of crumbling asphalt, rank weeds, and trash. A nasty wart on God’s green earth—although not, so far as prospective buyers were concerned, sufficiently cheap.
Passing by the lot this morning, I saw that it must recently have become cheap enough. On the ruins of the old Blarney Stone, someone had erected a spindly birdcage of yellow two by fours, with sheets of particleboard nailed here and there as an earnest of walls to come. All this was dripping with the aftermath of last night’s rain, which seemed to have left the wood slightly warped, with a fair promise of mold.
Having become sufficiently cheap, it appears that the site of the old Blarney Stone will once again be made sufficiently nasty.
A sign announced that, when completed by a few more sheets of particleboard, the birdcage would be brought to market as apartments. The advertised specifications suggest the denizens will be students, a market who demand private bedrooms, dislike lines outside the bathroom, but are otherwise not particular. They are in other words not ill-disposed to the cheap and nasty.
And in these apartments that are abuilding on the site of the old Blarney Stone, I foresee that they will get their cheap and nasty without stint or stay, for up and down that dismal stretch of road there is cheapness and nastiness as far as the eye can see.
(Lest I be taken as an insufferable snob, I must inform you that I presented my wife with her engagement ring in a beer joint just down that road, and on that road this beer joint fits right in.)
As I once before complained, the landscape of my place of residence is a sort of catalogue of the cheap and nasty (here), the main observable difference being that some buildings have fallen into dilapidation and some are about to fall into dilapidation. But even the new bits have nasty bones, and those bones will be showing soon enough.
This is because cheap and nasty always ages badly. This is true of clothes, buildings, books, and women. I believe there is deep metaphysical significance in the graceless aging of such things. Indeed, I am sufficiently romantic to believe there is deep metaphysical significance in the difference between ruins that enhance a landscape and mere wreckage that blights it. There is a reason no one ever painted a picture of the burned-out shell of a mobile home.
And here’s the first significance of the graceless aging of everything that is cheap and nasty: this is the stigma of living in the now.
Let me give you an example I see every day. A student who studies for the now—by which I mean for the exam scheduled for 9:35 tomorrow morning—will grow up to have a mind that is cheap and nasty. He will stride forth from the campus, diploma in hand, very nearly as ignorant as the day he arrived. Because it never occurred to him that he might find this book-learning useful at some point after 10:50 tomorrow morning, he simply slaps it together in his brain, like the wretched Blarney Stone or the wretched apartments by which that gimcrack gin joint is being replaced.
And this is why, in a week or so, his knowledge will begin to dilapidate and its nasty bones will begin to show.
I now see that this is relevant to what I wrote the other day about national destiny and national decline (here). Because they have no sense of destiny, and consequently live in the “zoological” now, fellaheen see nothing wrong with cheap and nasty. In fact, they themselves will tend to be rather cheap. I mean they are content with being good enough to pass the slipshod muster of today. And like everything cheap, they will soon turn nasty—they will turn into nasty wrecks rather than noble ruins.
And here, I suggest, is the final significance of the graceless aging of everything that is cheap and nasty. In the language of St. Paul, the “belly” is a symbol of the now, and men who live in the now are said to serve “their own belly.”
“The meal was cheap and my belly is full,” such a man will say.
“And this,” he adds (discreetly belching), “is good enough for now.”
“It is true,” he may go on, “that this feeling of repletion will rather quickly pass, that tomorrow my belly will growl again, and that the wreckage of this meal will be nothing but nasty dirt and stinking wind.”
“But such,” he says with a philosophic wave of the hand, “is life.”
“Such, rather,” we should answer, “is death.” And if he happens to be receptive to teachings from the Good Book, we might draw his attention to the line where St. Paul tells the Philippians that “destruction” is the end of those “whose God is their belly.”
Nasty wrecks or noble ruins. You choose.
A Pedantic Note
The phrase Cheap and Nasty entered the language of social analysis in Thomas Carlyle’s Shooting Niagara, and After (1867), in the course of his denunciation of the doctrine of free trade and the “dismal science” of political economy. We find the same critique running through Albert Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, where cheap and nasty invariably results from the doctrine of what he calls “economism.” He has particularly trenchant things to say about the dire effect mass literacy had on middle-brow literature.
I am, of course, aware of the defenses of America’s addiction to cheap and nasty. It is “democratic,” it is “pragmatic,” it is “fluid,” “flexible,” and “informal.” See The Beer Can by the Highway (1961), for instance, by John Kouwenhoven. But even this is touched with doubts. I’ve labored like a good patriot to be persuaded by these defenses, but in these patriotic labors I have failed.